Made-to-Order GA & Economic Exclusivity

By Scott Spangler on April 18th, 2016 | 7 Comments »

Economically, Piper Aircraft’s recent announcement that that it has gone totally made-to-order, makes sense. Unsold aircraft, commonly called “white tails” (a term that first described unsold airliners, identified by vertical stabilizers unadorned by an airline logo or livery paint scheme), can sequester needed finite financial resources redeemable only when the aircraft is sold. Only manufacturing new aircraft to each customer’s order preserves scarce resources in a more liquid form, ready to irrigate some aspect of business in need of financial hydration.

But making anything to order says something more than efficiently using financial resources. It implies exclusivity, a degree of access or acquisition available only to those with the requisite supply of money, time, and dedicated determination. Consider, a synonym for made-to-order is custom made. Clothing is a common consumable that costs more when custom-made than purchased off the racks.

General aviation is no different in this regard than a suit of clothes, and the Brits employ a term that connotes perfectly the exclusivity of anything custom-made: bespoke. Born in the 16th century, it derived from the verb “bespeak,” whose definition is “to order or arrange in advance.”

Before the Industrial Revolution and the miracle of mass production, almost everything was bespoke. Affordable mass produced products created the mass market that turned the surviving made-to-order artisans who catered to those who could afford their prices unreduced by any economies of scale.

Changes in market desires can have the same effect, and this certainly seems to be the general cause of general aviation’s decline. Just as the average person turned away from the critter-powered wagon when self-propelled modes of transport became affordable, the average person has turned to other recreational and professional activities that require a substantially less significant investment of time, money, and effort than aviation.

Still, there are connoisseurs of animal-powered wagons, and if they don’t possess the necessary means to invest in the custom-made recreation or the restoration of the vehicle that is their passion, they will make the sacrifices needed to achieve their goal. It seems clear that this is where aviation is today.

For myriad reasons, both financial and emotional, aviation is not for everyone. The resulting reality is that rather than pining for what was, we aviation aficionados should accept and work within the new normal. For those who’ve been flying through this transition, bespoke GA is way more expensive, but such is the price of participation.

There are alternatives, but the ultimate made-to-order airplane, the amateur-built experimental aircraft, is another subset of the fraternity of aviation geeks. For those not ready to bust a knuckle now or in the days after, Piper’s decision to make every airplane to order will ensure general aviation’s future for as long as there are individuals with the dedicated interest and ability to pay the price of their passion. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Forget the Cost of Learning to Fly, Think Value

By Robert Mark on April 11th, 2016 | 5 Comments »

SkyArrow AloftForget the Cost of Learning to Fly, Think Value

You’ve obviously thought of learning to fly or you wouldn’t be here right now. Spend a little time reading Richard Bach’s classic Jonathan Livingston Seagull and I guarantee you’ll be putty in the hands of any flight instructor who offers you a demo flight. You may not even need an airplane.

OK, back to reality … where everyone remembers how damned expensive it is to learn to fly. Blah, blah, blah.


Cost Vs. Value

Forget what everyone else has told you about why no one learns to fly anymore and prepare your mind for a few fresh ideas.

When you stroll around a new-car showroom or troll the Internet for a set of wheels, is cost the only thing on your mind? I doubt it. If it were, how could Toyota, GM, Honda and the rest have sold all those electric cars? They’re way more expensive than my gas-driven Mini Cooper, the one I’ve been driving for 10 years now … with no payments for the last six. If you’re outside the 1%, you probably think about buying a car in terms of the number of monthly payments before that baby’s yours.

Consider school today. The cost of our daughter’s college is enough to melt the brains of people who don’t have kids. Luckily she’ll only be 22 when she graduates which means she’ll have many years ahead to add her two cents to the entertainment world she loves based on her education.

When we talk flying though, everyone zeroes in on the cost per hour and little else.

But what if we treated learning to fly like a college education or a new car and amortized the cost … spread it out over a few years. What happens next is simply magical. The price of learning to fly begins to look affordable as the raw dollar issue slips to the back of your focus much like minimizing a tab on a browser. You know it’s still there, but it’s just not staring you in the face every moment of the day.


AOPA’s Reimagined Cessna 152

Jim Knollenberg told me the other day that earning a private pilot certificate today, start to finish, probably runs between $10,000 to $12,000. He’s president of Pilot Finance Inc., an Illinois-based company that finances both the private pilot certificate and the instrument rating for the short of cash. Read the rest of this entry »

Udvar-Hazy: Surprises & Friends Restored

By Scott Spangler on March 28th, 2016 | 6 Comments »

634A9600After reading almost every word written about the National Air & Space Museum ‘s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the last emotion I expected when walking through the door was overwhelming surprise. But taking in the second-floor panorama of the Boeing Aviation Hangar turned me into a deeply rooted tree. No matter which way I turned my eyes, up, down, to the left and to the right, I saw airplanes that were old friends, known only to me by photos of the well-thumbed pages of books on my shelves at home, and winged creatures that silently asked, do you know me?

To the left was the Enola Gay. The last time this B-29 and I met during a behind the scenes tour at the Garber restoration facility in the 1990s, she was in pieces. Looking at her reassembled form standing proud on an elevated stand, what came to mind were the signatures of her caretakers on the end ribs of the engineless wings while the B-29 was in storage at the former Douglas C-54 factory on the airport, Orchard Field, built during the war to support it. Today we know it as Chicago O’Hare.

634A9709To the right was a battered P-61 Black Widow. With shiny aluminum showing through its matt black finish, grizzled is the word that best describes it. On its twin tails were the worn yellow point remains of its last duty assignment with NACA, preceded by white block letters on the tail booms that spelled test. Before I read the placard telling of the airplane’s history, I knew from my visit to Dayton that this airplane was an Operation Thunderstorm squadron mate of the P-61 on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sitting before the Black Widow was another product of Northrup Aviation, the predecessor of the B-2, N-1M flying wing.

Wandering throughout the vast hangar I renewed my acquaintance with a number of old friends, many of whom I’d first met at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Standing next to each other were the Concorde and Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Above us were Leo Loudenslager’s Laser 200, a Rutan VariEze, and Art Scholl’s Super Chipmunk. The surprise was finding Little Gee Bee, the homebuilt George Bogardus flew from Oregon to Washington, DC, to lobby for the rule that gave life to amateur-built experimental aircraft. Through the windows overlooking the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Center was the Sikorsky JRS-1 amphibian that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the storied B-26 that flew more than 200 combat missions, Flak Bait.

634A9699The Space Hangar introduced flying machines seen only on TV, from the space shuttle Discovery to the suits that protected their occupants from the harsh environment outside. What surprised me most, in looking at the suits, boots, and helmets is how physically small astronauts are. At the end of a time line of space craft was a Mercury capsule, Freedom 7 II, and the day’s last surprise. In all my reading about the space program, Mercury ended with Gordon Cooper’s long duration flight. But reading the placard before the fully equipped Freedom 7 II I learned that it was to be flown on a long duration mission by Alan Shepard, who made the program’s first flight, a short suborbital jaunt downrange.

If there was a disappointment about my visit is that I didn’t allocate enough time to see it all. But that might take a good week or more. But that in itself is more than a good enough reason for several return visits. –Scott Spangler, Editor

NPRM Offers New Part 23 Airplane Lexicon

By Scott Spangler on March 14th, 2016 | Comments Off on NPRM Offers New Part 23 Airplane Lexicon

If the recently released Part 23 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking survives the comment and review period and makes it to a final rule, old, new, and prospective pilots will have to learn a new airplane lexicon. But don’t hyperventilate, like the NPRM itself, it is simple and straightforward.

Based on aircraft weight and propulsion, the existing Part 23 divisions are Normal, Utility, Acrobatic, and Commuter. As proposed, say good-bye to the last three. All new Part 23 airplanes will be certificated as Normal, in one of four Airplane Certification Levels (ACL) determined by the maximum number of seats:

Level 1 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 0 to 1
Level 2 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 2 to 6
Level 3 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 7 to 9
Level 4 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 10 to 19 passengers.

This works in concert with the Airplane Performance Level (APL).  It replaces the existing propulsion-based divisions, which were established with piston-powered airplanes were traditionally slower than those with turboprops. To quote the NPRM, “These assumptions are no longer valid. Airplane certification based on performance levels would apply regulatory standards appropriate to airplane’s performance and complexity.” So the Normal Part 23 airplane will be either:

Low Speed – for airplanes with a design cruising speed (VC) or maximum operating limit speed (VMO) ≤ 250 KCAS (or MMO ≤ 0.6).
High Speed – for airplanes with a VC or VMO > 250 KCAS (or MMO > 0.6).

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MH370 Two Years Later: Has the Industry Changed?

By Robert Mark on March 7th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Malaysian Boeing 777

MH370 Two Years Later: Has the Industry Changed?

It’s anniversary time, but March 8 won’t be a happy day to reminisce.

Two years ago, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), a Boeing 777, disappeared from the night skies over the South China Sea on what should have been a routine flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. All 239 people aboard disappeared along with the airplane.

Only one confirmed piece of MH370 wreckage has been located, a section of the 777′ s flap that washed ashore near Reunion Island last year, some 4000 miles west of where an intensive search operation has been combing the ocean floor for nearly two years.

The theories about what happened to this airplane are as varied as the beer and wine probably consumed before most of those theories went public. Me, I have no idea what happened to the flight.

Lessons Learned?

What’s crucial for our industry however, is understanding what steps the airlines and regulators around the world have taken over the past two years, solutions to make international travelers sleep a bit easier after their next ticket purchase.

To the surprise of a couple of local Chicago WGN-TV anchors I spoke to last week, the simple answer to what’s changed since March 2014 is not much at all. Another airliner could go missing just like MH370 because although a few plans have been released, tracking the location of an airplane anywhere on the planet is no different today than when we lost MH370.

That doesn’t mean no one is trying to solve the problem of course.

A year after the Malaysian 777 disappeared, most member states of the United Nation’s aviation arm, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO), agreed that air traffic control anywhere on the globe should be able to receive location updates from an airliner at least every 15 minutes and once a minute if the aircraft were in distress. They’ve also recommended new methods of recovering flight data recorders from downed aircraft. But recommendations shouldn’t be confused with solutions. Some of ICAO’s newest recommendations won’t take effect until 2021. Read the rest of this entry »

Bomber 21? Why Not Build a Better B-52?

By Scott Spangler on February 29th, 2016 | 7 Comments »

The U.S. Air Force opened the doors on its new, and as yet unnamed, long-range strike bomber, the B-21. The contract pasted in the cockpit window said each bomber would cost $500 million and the total program cost for a fleet of 100 B-21s would be $80 billion. Yeah, like that will happen.

Given the tradition of cost overruns and schedule delays, we can expect only two things with any certainty. First, the bomber will succeed the F-35 as the nation’s most expensive weapons program, and it will guaranteed a century of service for the B-52.

Like all the bombers that have come since B-52 entered service in 1955, the B-21 is supposed to replace the heavy-hauling daily driver of the bomber fleet. Brought to you by the same company that delivered the B-2 Spirit at $1.157 billion each, the B-21 will likely become another pampered plane, a winged Lamborghini, that only comes out of the garage when it’s a nice day.

If the Air Force is going to make a “better” B-2 with the B-21, why not get more for the taxpayer’s money by building a better B-52 by following the precedent set by the P-8 Poseidon, based on the Boeing 737, and the KC-46 Pegasus, based on the Boeing 767. Why call up the computer design files for the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and save them as the foundation for the new B-52? Given their sticker prices, we could get two for the price of one, at least until the “military discount” increases the 787’s price.

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Aviation Mastery or Minimum Standards . . . What’s Your M.O.?

By Robert Mark on February 25th, 2016 | Comments Off on Aviation Mastery or Minimum Standards . . . What’s Your M.O.?

Publisher Note: I’ve known Jim Lara for some time since we work together on the NBAA Single Pilot Working Group trying to tackle the challenge of reducing the accident rate for people who fly business airplanes alone. Like me, Jim believes that our training system, used to qualify pilots to minimum standards set forth by the FAA, is flawed. I too am frustrated working with people in all aspects of our industry who believe “good enough,” is just fine. Here’s how Jim explained it. 

Rob Mark



Aviation Mastery or Minimum Standards

By Jim Lara, Gray Stone Advisors

When was the last time someone in the aviation profession asked you (or you asked yourself) “Is this good enough?” What does “good enough” really mean, anyway? In my opinion, the very question constitutes an attitude of mediocrity.

The real question for aviation professionals should be: “Is good enough ever really good enough in any business or private aviation pursuit?

So many times, we use the descriptive phrases “world-class,” “best-in-class” and “excellence.” But do we really mean it or is it simply “ear candy” because it sounds good?

In the realm of professional aviation, each of us carries a mantle of tremendous responsibility for the other souls with whom we share the airspace, our families and colleagues, our companies and employers and, of course, ourselves.

The consequences of a serious misstep in our profession can have a finality that renders the statement, “I will do better next time” meaningless.

Given those stakes, to what level of performance should we aspire? Perfection? No, by definition perfection is simply unreachable.

Defining Aviation Mastery

An industry colleague of ours, President of Mastery Flight Training Tom Turner, has described a standard that is arduous and demanding, yet achievable.

He refers to it, simply, as mastery.

One of the highlights of this concept is that it can be applied to each and every one of our roles in aviation—as maintenance technicians, flight crew members, schedulers and dispatchers, business office specialists and aviation-mastery-training-fleaders.

Tom’s graphic (right) likens mastery to “earning your stripes.” The concept, of course, is that you move up the chain of command as you master each step. In practice, we have seen that’s not always the case.

Mastery vs. Minimums

The unfortunate reality is that aviation operational standards have been put forth as minimum standards.

As you already know, this terminology is in standard usage for everything—from FBO leases with the local Airport Authority to pilot type ratings for today’s most sophisticated business jets.

The acceptance of the “minimum standards” concept has helped perpetuate a culture of minimum performance that seeps into virtually every aspect of aviation. And when you consider the deadly consequences of a misstep, don’t you find it ironic that “minimum” and “standards” are used together in the context of
“performance” and “safety”?

Let me interject a true story here: Just a few weeks ago, I was present in one of our industry’s leading Part 142 training facilities. There were about a dozen full-motion simulators booked around the clock.

The classrooms were fully outfitted with the latest interactive learning tools. And there was a top-notch resource library staffed by a pair of professional librarians, eager to help with any conceivable research request.

Over lunch, the conversation between one of my classmates and the instructor went something like this:

“I’m supposed to be here for five days, but do you think I can skip the LOFT and be out of here in four days? And, if we could double up a day, can we check all of the boxes (61.58 check) in three days? What’s the minimum that I really have to do?”

For those who’ve completed a few years of recurrent training, I’m sure that conversation sounds pretty familiar.

But when the instructor really started probing to gauge the student’s true level of understanding (systems, performance, etc.), the student got resistant and asked, “What’s the minimum that I need to know?”

Mastering Mastery

If we truly think of ourselves as aviation professionals, what level of performance comes along with earning that title? I argue that it is mastery and mastery alone.

That means having a profound understanding of all of the relevant subjects in your area of focus.

And it means understanding all of the whys—not just the hows.

And, finally, it means being able to mentor, teach and communicate your invaluable understanding and experiences to those individuals who are in the developmental years of their careers.

I believe that each of us in an aviation organization should be a leader. And it is up to each of us to set the standards of aviation mastery; first for ourselves, and then to influence the adoption of those standards throughout each of the functional areas in our respective organizations.

It’s not easy. Without a doubt, the performance bar to reach the mastery level is ever higher.

As we learn more, and perform at higher levels, the horizon of possibility and performance will always stretch out in front of us—always just a little out of reach.

But as we learn more, we understand more. And as we understand more, we become more valuable to our organizations. When that happens on a consistent basis, our business aviation organizations can create more quantifiable value for their host organizations.

When we attain that level of performance, sustainability of the business aviation function is within reach. But the quest for mastery must continue all the same.

Now, back to that opening question: “Is just ‘good enough’ ever really ‘good enough’?”

Well, one thing is for certain: “good enough” certainly isn’t mastery! And, if it isn’t mastery that we’re aiming for, can we rightfully refer to ourselves as “aviation professionals”?

After all, mastery is the cornerstone of aviation professionalism.

Technology Satisfies Cockpit Curiosity

By Scott Spangler on February 15th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

NAHA-55Maybe it’s a pilot thing, but I find the insides of airplanes just as interesting, and often more interesting, than their outsides. Cockpits and crew stations is where humans interface with the machine that carries them aloft, and I’m always curious to see how engineers of the era approached this connection.

Previously unexplored—or unattainable—positions, like the tail gunner’s station on the B-52D Stratofortress, amplifies the curiosity to almost intolerable levels. Before radar replaced the gunner that flew in this lonely, pressurized cubicle separate from the rest of the crew (and how did he get in and out anyway?), what did his world look like, and what could he see out those tiny windows?


Courtesy of YouTube I’ve spent way too much time searching for and watching the Cockpit 360 videos created by AeroCapture Images. Courtesy of a news release from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, I’ve learned that there’s a free ACI Cockpit360º app that allows museum goers to satisfy their cockpit curiosity on their smart phones, which encourages me to investigate the acquisition of one of these devices.

Until that time, however, the Air Force Museum was kind enough to post their Cockpit 360 videos to its website. And after 40 years of wondering, my B-52 tail gun curiosity is satisfied…almost. I still don’t know how the gunner reached his lonely outpost.

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force isn’t the only institution that employs ACI Cockpit360 videos. The ACI Cockpit 360 website lists many more, but in visiting a lot of them online, few of them post their cockpit curiosity tours online. You must visit with your smart phone. The Historic Flight Foundation posts its North American B-25, P-51 Mustang, and T-6 Texan and its Grumman F8F Bearcat and F7F Tigercat cockpits online.

The Air Force news release announced the addition of 15 new aircraft to the Cockpit 360 videos in the museum’s library, which now totals 60 different aircraft. Many of them, like the B-52, with more than one video per airframe.

The most interesting video on the site show how Lyle Jansma of ACI, records the high definition images with a Canon 5D Mark II camera body. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check out the P-61 Black Widow and the B-36 Peacemaker. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Congress Proposes Drastic Cut to GI Bill Flight Training

By Scott Spangler on February 1st, 2016 | Comments Off on Congress Proposes Drastic Cut to GI Bill Flight Training

If you care about the aviation industry and the veterans, whose honorable service earned them GI Bill benefits that lead to the degrees leading to careers in it, you need to be aware of HR 3016. You may wonder what the VA Provider Equity Act, which would pay podiatrists the same at other physicians who work the Veterans Administration, and establish a new VA bureaucracy, has to do with veteran flight training benefits.

A lot.

Buried in HR 3016, introduced by Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), is a provision that would cut veteran flight training benefits by $882 million over the next decade. Making this disservice to our vets even worse is the discrimination it represents; veterans using their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to earn degrees in other disciplines do not face the cuts proposed for those pursuing aviation degrees.

Specifically, HR 3016 would cap VA flight training benefits at $20,235 a year, a total of $80,940 for a four-year degree program. As anyone already in aviation probably knows, the actual costs are much higher. With their higher operating costs, rotary-wing aircraft lead the way. According to a Helicopter Association International survey, a four-year degree for an employment ready commercial helo pilot with instrument instructor rating is approximately $212,500.

To further increase the student debt of veterans pursuing an aviation career, HR 3016 proposes that the VA no longer pay for training that leads to a private pilot certificate, the first step in a professional pilot degree program. Depending on where the students are going to school, and depending on what they are flying, this prerequisite will cost them $15,000 to $20,000.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, enactment of this legislation would deny 600 veterans a year from pursing the professional pilot degree programs that would launch their aviation careers. HR 3016 is scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, February 2. If, as expected, the House approves it, the legislation then goes to the Senate. This gives us two chances to contact our elected officials and let them know what we think of this discriminatory and unfair cut to benefits our vets have honorable earned. Scott Spangler, Editor

User-Fee ATC: Speak Up Now or Lose Access

By Scott Spangler on January 18th, 2016 | Comments Off on User-Fee ATC: Speak Up Now or Lose Access

Call it what you like, privatizing, corporatizing, or commercializing the FAA air traffic control system will ruin the foundation of the world’s largest, safest, and most diverse and complex national airspace system. Oh, and unless we stand up and speak up to our elected officials, it will probably mark the end of general aviation as we know it. And not for the reason you think.

Our politicians and the special interests behind them propose this ATC takeover at least once a decade. Common to all of them is replacing the efficient and equitable fuel-and-ticket-tax funding of the system with user fees. Money always gets a pilot’s attention, but that’s not what this is about.

What matters most to the special interests behind these efforts is control of who has access to the airspace and airports. Regardless of the primary target, such as the growing number of low-cost carriers targeted in the 1990’s user-fee ATC attempt, GA always comes second to the airlines’ needs, and in every scheme, airline people are the majority on the board of directors that would run user-fee ATC.

The GA community successfully opposed the user-fee ATC schemes proposed in the 1990s and in 2006-8, but the threat this year is more ominous for several reasons.

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